It’s a new season, summer is around the corner, and for many people this means making some type of resolution toward a healthier lifestyle. This often comes in the form of a diet overhaul. The person making this change might be fed up with what they see as an unhealthy diet or they might find the rigidity of a diet with strict rules comforting in that it takes the guesswork out of what are “good” or “bad” foods. This inflexible attribute, though, is often what causes people to bow out of these nutritional ventures.
It seems that the best way to make a lasting change is through small habits accumulated over a period of time. When it comes to diet, one easy change to make is to simply get more fiber.
Harvard School of Public Health defines fiber as “a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest.” They go on to explain that since fiber cannot be broken down into sugar molecules (as most carbohydrates are), it passes through the body without being digested. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber can dissolve in water. It turns into a type of gel in water. This type of fiber can help lower glucose levels and cholesterol. Foods that contain soluble fiber include oatmeal, nuts, beans, lentils, apples, and blueberries.
Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water. It helps to move food through your digestive system, which helps with regularity. Foods with insoluble fiber include whole wheat bread, whole grain couscous, brown rice, legumes, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
So what are some benefits of fiber? According to the Harvard website, a study of over 40,000 male health professionals found that high dietary fiber intake was linked to a lower risk of coronary heart disease. High amounts of dietary fiber are linked to a lower risk of the factors that contribute to diabetes. Insoluble fiber is associated with a lower risk of diverticula disease. Another Harvard study showed that high fiber intake, especially during adolescence and young adulthood, reduced the risk of developing breast cancer. And, of course, fiber helps with constipation, one of the most common GI issues Americans develop.
On the other hand, low fiber diets have been shown to contribute to the risk factors of developing Type 2 diabetes. Additionally, low fiber diets have been shown to weaken the mucous lining of the intestines, leading to greater risks of pathogens permeating the membrane and entering the body.
One common benefit you will hear regarding fiber is that it contributes to a feeling of fullness, which of course can help one to eat less without feeling like they are depriving themselves. How does fiber help with this feeling? There are mechanoreceptors in the lining of the stomach that respond to the stretch the stomach feels as it is being filled. This sends a signal of fullness to the brain. Because fiber isn’t broken down in the stomach but rather gels and expands, it contributes to the stretch the stomach feels and thus the message that is sent to the brain that says, “We’re full.” These foods are often low in overall calories which means a feeling of fullness while eating less calories. This is essentially how Metamucil, a soluble fiber supplement, works. If you’ve ever mixed Metamucil with water and let it sit for a while, you might have noticed a gel like consistency at the bottom of the glass. This is the same process that occurs within the stomach.
You might have noticed more information coming out regarding the importance of the bacteria living in our guts. This has led to the rise in popularity of probiotic supplements, kombucha, and brands of yogurt advertising their gut health benefits. Because gut bacteria ferments soluble fiber, it feeds this vital bacteria as well. Keeping this bacteria well fed leads to better gastrointestinal health. New research has been continually coming out showing that healthy gut flora can lead to overall wellness even outside of the GI tract.
So now that you know all the wonderful benefits provided by a high fiber diet, how does one get more fiber? Harvard offers some tips for increasing fiber intake:
Additionally, it is recommended to increase your fiber intake gradually rather than suddenly to curtail any gastrointestinal distress, and because fiber absorbs water, you should increase your water intake as well. Most people won’t need to utilize a fiber supplement like Metamucil (for one thing eating your food will contribute to satiety better than drinking your food) unless they have a health condition that would negate eating fruits and starches, such as a blood sugar or gut flora issue.
So, if you’re looking to make a positive change to your diet, but don’t feel like flipping your world upside down, just look for opportunities to round out your nutrition with fiber-rich food. Your gut will thank you!
Written by Chris Branam